It’s not Halloween until I watch… The Wolf Man (1941)
Universal Pictures’ original The Wolf Man is not the first of that studio’s fabled monster movies I watched. Nor as an adult do I recognize it as the best Universal Monsters movie. But it was my favorite growing up, and the one I wore out the VHS tape on every October.
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak later alleged the idea for The Wolf Man occurred to him because as a German Jewish immigrant who fled the Nazi Party, he’d seen firsthand how proverbially good men turn into monsters. And there’s something primal, indeed, about the battle between good and evil in the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), the unlikely son of a Welsh nobleman who returns home from America after his brother’s death. What he finds is the most werewolf-obsessed town in movie history… and eventually an actual werewolf to boot.
As a kid, the appeal to me was Jack Pierce’s iconic monster makeup that glued Yak hair to Chaney’s face, as well as the overwhelming Grimm Fairy Tale quality to a film that seems simultaneously set in the early 20th century and the land of medieval Europe that time forgot. Later I came to better appreciate the underrated sense of despair in Chaney’s performance conveyed through his doleful eyes. And the movie is heightened further still by two truly great performances by Claude Rains as Larry’s doubting father, Sir John, and Maria Ouspenskaya as the Romani woman who sees all. When those two interact around Sir John’s wayward son in the finale, it’s as good as any monster movie there’s ever been. – David Crow
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Angel Heart
The spooky season, for me, begins with Angel Heart. Mind you, I may watch it in the middle of June, but it will set off a binge of deep psychological satanic horror that will last until Christmas. Every year, I follow Mickey Rourke’s Johnny Angel from his private detective’s office on 23rd Street, down to Coney Island, and off to New Orleans for the all-consuming thrill of dread. But be warned: most horror films will pale in comparison, leading viewers to a deeper dive into demonic terror looking for a more potent dose. There are none. Angel Heart is horror perfection.
Made by master storyteller Alan Parker, the devil is in the details, and they are always shrouded in a corner, framed by burnt color coding, and teasing foreshadowing. Robert De Niro’s Louis Cyphre is a Mephistophelian marvel, which is a mouthful in Manhattan, whose very presence tingles with the charge of sinister energy. He invokes the most evil parts of Martin Scorsese for a charismatic and seditiously seductive overseer. Charlotte Rampling brings ice cold, dead-eyed menace to her Margaret Krusemark, alias Madame Zora, alias the Witch of Wellesley, the debutante with the ceremonial dagger, and the right hand of a convicted murderer, cut off while his neck was still in the noose. But the most damning temptation is the young voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), the true victim and lost salvation.
The private detective signed on for a simple missing person case, a golden-throated singer who skipped out on a personal contract, and gets dragged so deep in the muck that the audience feels dirty. As Johnny Favorite rides the elevator to perdition, we are more than scared. It feels like we’ve sinned. – Tony Sokolo